Sunday, August 28, 2011

Indian Democracy at a Cross-Roads

Yesterday, I went back down to Ramlila Maidan and watched as two girls - one Muslim and one dalit or untouchable - gave Anna Hazare a cup of coconut water sweetened with honey. After 13 days, he broke his fast. The crowd cheered, Indian flags waved, and "victory of the people" was declared. Parliament had passed a declaration that they would accept the conditions of the Lokpal, an ombuds office to investigate official corruption, that Team Anna made. "I hope Parliament won't go back on their promise," said Anna from the stage. 

This is a fascinating time to be researching and teaching in India. India is the biggest democracy in the world, and yet the coalitions that emerge from the multi-party system can challenge the greatest of yoga gurus. It has growth rates that any country would envy, and yet there is a huge gap between wealth and poverty that is apparent in the streets and villages of this vast land. And right now, there is the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare which I view as a brilliantly complex case study in how civil society can effect change. The timing of my visit was fortuitous because my greatest interest is in how individuals and movements from civil society can bring positive change to communities. This blog entry will reflect on both the power and the danger of these movements, concluding with some thoughts on how the recent events in India might inspire other democracies. [NOTE: I have submitted a slightly different version of this article to Diplomatist magazine here in India.]

Power of Civil Society
Anna Hazare mobilized millions on this issue of anti-corruption. It was an amazing display of charisma, inspiration and, ultimately, power to persuade others. Why was this movement energizing to so many? And why was Anna the man to mobilize them?

The movement energized people because all lives seem touched by this issue of corruption at some level. There was a heart-wrenching story in the news of a young man lamenting that his first act as a new father was that he had to pay a bribe to a low level bureaucrat in order to receive his son’s birth certificate. A friend told me a story of his brother-in-law who was paying a bribe for a job and in a meeting the politician justified this bribe by telling him that “half would be going to god” because the politician always made donations to his temple. Everyone I meet can tell me some instance where they or those they know have been asked to or actually do pay a bribe. (Although interestingly no one has told me that they asked for and received a bribe.)

The issue of corruption is deeper than just bribes, of course. It affects the economy in very real ways, as some corporations might shy away from doing businesses in such an environment and those that do have added costs. It affects the development of talent, as some students might enter schools or universities and workers might be hired by government or corporates when better candidates should have got those positions. It affects the delivery of public services, as some low level bureaucrats may not give to citizens in a timely manner what they rightly request. It affects the moral character of society, as people don’t quite know who to trust and, therefore, end up cynical about all politicians, public officials, business owners, educational institutions, etc., etc.

Along comes Anna Hazare calling for an end to this cancer on society. Francis Fukuyama, made famous for his article then book titled The End of History, later wrote a more relevant book called Trust (1995). In it, he wrote that trust is nurtured when there is a “prior moral consensus [that] gives members of the group a basis for mutual trust” (p. 26). I would argue that Anna tapped that prior moral consensus by using the language and methods of Mahatma Gandhi, the one Indian in history that all look to for moral leadership, to carry out his cause. Anna’s fasting, his nonviolence, his calls for changes in personal behavior, all recalled the moral principles of Gandhi and so energized the conscience of Indians by engendering their trust.

Anna declared a “fast unto death” in order to fight corruption. Although he was clear on his end game – namely, passing the Jan Lokpal bill – others who joined him in the streets may not have been. In the beginning, most of his followers were simply angry about corruption. One former Speaker of the Lok Sabha with whom I had the honor of meeting told me, “Ninety percent of the people out on the streets don’t know the particulars of the Lokpal bills being debate. They are just angry about corruption and this is the way to show their anger.”

Giving people a way to vent their anger is important. Studies in the field of conflict management have shown that without feeling that they have been heard, people will not feel satisfied with any resolution. How people in the streets and the leaders of this movement channeled that anger into action is the more interesting part of the story. Eventually, the political leaders and Team Anna negotiate a comprehensive resolution that passes both houses of Parliament, although there are details yet to be worked on by the Standing Committee before final passage.

What I have seen in my two visits to Ramlila Grounds is a huge diversity of people across lines of rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young, men and women, and all religions, castes, and classes. Although there was a political agenda – to pass the Jan Lokpal bill – it is not a partisan one. True that certain (opposition) parties have tried to align themselves more closely with this anti-corruption movement, getting as much political advantage for themselves as possible, yet the movement is still clearly coming out of civil society. And that is a large part of the power of the movement.

Drawing on the work of the great sociologist Max Weber (1947) and later Domhoff (2002), I define power as a group’s ability to use resources to achieve desired results. And Team Anna and his followers did just that. They used the resources at their disposal – mass gatherings of people, media coverage, political back-channels for negotiation, and most persuasive of all, the fast of a Gandhian icon – which were instrumental in getting Parliament to pass legislation that they wanted. No matter what you think of the techniques or outcomes, that is effective use of power!

People are feeling like their voices are heard between the casting of votes every few years. There is an outpouring of emotion around this issue. And while no one is going to go on record as a supporter of corruption, there were more than a lak at Ramlila on the day after the victory of the passage of the Lokpal that publicly pledged with hands raised, “I will not take bribes. I will not pay bribes.”

In the end this is the greater power of a movement such as this. The Lokpal is only an external system for regulating against corruption; and one legitimate critique is that creating a huge new bureaucracy runs the risk of possibly becoming corrupt itself or ineffective in policing of others. While the systemic change is crucial, the real change in corruption is when people no longer accept or practice it in their own minds, hearts and actions.

Danger of Civil Society
Tonight people are partying on the streets of Delhi and throughout India. And well they should. Today is turning point of Indian democracy, a proud moment for this proud nation. Other turning points are certainly the Independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi; the JP movement against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, led by Jayaprakash Narayan; and, as told to me in a recent meeting by a retired IAS officer who served as Union Cabinet Secretary, a crucial moment in Indian history that upheld the democratic process was when on April 17, 1999, the ruling BJP handed over control of the government when they lost a vote of confidence by one rather questionable vote. So, today’s triumph is another turning point in Indian democracy. But even as we all celebrate Anna and the people’s victory, it would be irresponsible to see this without also considering the potential dangers explored below.

There were a number of points when the anti-corruption movement could have turned and the power of the state might have come down hard. In fact, one might argue that the arrest of Anna Hazare on his way to start his fast was just one point. Almost all commentators now say that was a political mistake by Congress Party. Another mistake may have been Congress trying to blame this citizen’s movement on a “foreign hand” (read the U.S.A.) instead of the legitimate will of a fed-up people. And a final mistake may have been waiting until the 12th day of Anna’s fast before finally resolving the issue, thereby risking his death which could have turned this nonviolent mass into a violent mob.

Next time there might not be an Anna calling for restraint and things will turn violent. Actually, as his health worsened on the 10th and 11th day of his fast, I started to think about the dire consequences if he were to die. But Anna was very clear throughout his fast in instructing his followers to refrain from violence. A social worker from Bihar who I met at Ramlila told me, “If there is violence, the movement will end. Only with peace, as Annaji tells us, we will succeed.”

Maybe it took a man such as Anna, perceived to be righteous and a devout follower of the Mahatma, for this movement to be a success. Still, there is a danger when only one person personifies a whole movement. A friend who is in his eighties and fought for independence with Gandhiji in his youth, said something profound to me recently, “We are a nation of man worshippers. We need a mascot. There’s no alternative to Anna right now. But our hope is that every person will feel empowered to make a difference.”

On the other hand, there are critiques of Team Anna too. There were some moments when media relations could have been more deftly handled, especially as the negotiations between the two sides were taking place. There could have been a clearer plan for next steps after the Lokpal bill was passed. Having mobilized millions is the next best thing really to campaign against those politicians who voted against the bill, thereby turning a positive people’s movement into a negative electoral movement?

Then there what I think is the more significant critique, and that is how Anna and his followers ‘blackmailed’ Parliament into doing what they wanted by circumventing the constitutional process of representative government. Other commentators have compared Mobocracy versus Democracy. If you believe that Members of Parliament are legitimately elected – and that is a big “if” in the minds of many I talk to – then it is up to them to make laws of the land and not up to agitators from outside government. But let’s be truthful in this analysis and admit that various interest groups, especially those with money, influence legislation to benefit themselves all the time. So, why should the claims of civil society not also be brought?

This raises the tricky question of how to deal with the ongoing demands of so-called civil society. There will be all sorts of interest groups that will bring their causes to the pundits, politicians and parks of New Delhi. Some causes may be important, but others may be crazy. In the end, this Anna Hazare movement may just shake the political system enough to demand creation of a legitimate and formal way that the government seeks citizen participation in decision making.

Of course, citizen participation takes many forms in India and other democracies. Gandhi’s vision of a panchayat system is the ultimate in citizen participation. In the U.S.A., there are neighborhood associations, town hall meetings, electronic polling, citizens’ juries and local advisory commissions that may (or may not) have actual decision making and budgeting power. And, as we have just seen with this anti-corruption campaign, there are protest movements that put public pressure on political leaders to take certain actions.

One final danger of this successful movement is that it will raise expectations of the people that they may always be listened to, only to have that hope dashed in the future.
A classic work in the area of citizen participation is by Sherry Arnstein (1969) in which she uses the metaphor of rungs on the ladder of citizen participation. This typology includes:
  •          Nonparticipation in which citizens are “educated” by the politicians and their technical experts.
  •          Tokenism in which citizens are “heard” by those in power, but they are given no real power to affect decision making.
  •          Citizen Power in which citizens are actually making decisions that affect policy, budgeting and implementation.

At which rung of the ladder does citizen participation in India usually take place? How has this Anna movement changed the way citizens participated and will in the future expect to participate?

Lessons for Other Democracies
India is seen throughout the world as a model of democracy. For all the challenges to governing a vast and diverse population, it has succeeded in so many ways. I believe this latest people’s movement against corruption will challenge other democracies to look at the power of their people to participate in governance. When a Star News reporter at Ramlila asked me what I thought of the gathering, I answered, “This is democracy in action. I think that Americans should learn from India – the world biggest democracy – about how civil society can play a role in social change. This is an amazing people’s movement.” 

Although many have made the analogy between India’s anti-corruption movement and the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, I don’t think they are comparable. In one place, you have deep democracy already in place and the people are protesting a change in policy through legislation. In other places, there was no democracy and the people were calling for revolution against the rulers.

There are many ways that change comes about. Multi-track diplomacy, as explained by Diamond and McDonald (1996), suggests that there is legitimate and necessary diplomatic work that goes on outside of Track One, or government-to-government, international relations. Taking this idea into the national context, the conclusion would be that there are many different stakeholders, not just elected officials, who have legitimate and necessary voice in the process. As Barber (1984) envisioned, it is this participation that makes for strong democracy.

So, how one includes those citizens, especially those who have traditionally been left out of the process, in the decision making of governance is a multi-track approach. Some may only want to protest in the streets, while others want to sit at the table and negotiate the intricacies of legislation; some may want to attend in-put sessions with the technocrats, while others may want to log onto a website where simple questions ask for opinions of the average citizen. I believe that this multi-track approach is the key to success. One size will never fit all when dealing with a country as vast and diverse as India.

Let the people celebrate this amazing victory of democracy for a time. But soon, they need to look at what else, beyond the Lokpal bill, needs to be done on a personal or legislative basis in order to root out corruption from our lives. And the ongoing question is how to channel the momentum we are all feeling from this victory into lasting change in the way democracy works and citizen’s voices are heard. 

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